The following is my homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings can be found here.
On May 21, 2011, the world was supposed to end. At least, that’s what the evangelical preacher Harold Camping claimed. You may remember this. There were billboards on highways, ads in papers. The 24-hour news cycle couldn’t get enough of it, interviewing people who believed him, getting rebuttals from those who disagreed. I watched news coverage of people who sold all of their possessions, quit their jobs, even abandoned their children because they believed the rapture was coming. It was surreal, absurd, and absolutely saddening.
What was so crazy about the situation to me was the fact that this was not Camping’s first rodeo: he had wrongly predicted the end of the world twice before. And he wasn’t the only one. According to Wikipedia there have been 90 failed predictions in the last 100 years alone. But this one is the one, right? The guile of some people. The gullibility of others. For centuries—millennia, even—people have been predicting the end of the world, getting people all worked up and worried, only to be proven wrong every single time.
And yet, people continue to fall for them. People do get worried at the predictions, not just of false prophets, but of politicians, economists, and news pundits. Maybe they’re predicting the end of the world, or maybe they’re telling us that the economy will crash if a certain candidate is elected, that the Vatican has been infiltrated by people with evil agenda with a plot to destroy the Church from within, that UGA has no chance against LSU in the SEC Championship game. All nonsense, I tell you! There are, as Pope John XXIII pointed out, many “prophets of doom” in our world, those who can only see the worst of the world and want nothing more than to spread fear.
In our Gospel today, Jesus tells us to pump the brakes a bit. Relax.
The world will come to an end one day, he says. Both our first reading and Gospel make this clear. There will come a day when there will not be left a stone on top of another stone—even the Temple will be destroyed, even some of the good things our our world will fall away to make room for the reign of God. Yes, this will happen so don’t get comfortable; don’t put your trust in human institutions, in your wealth or safety because the world as we know it will end one day.
But this ain’t it. The world will end one day, but if anyone claims that it is right now, if anyone claims to know when or how it will happen, Jesus says, they are a false prophet. Rather, what Jesus says is that, in the midst of trials, when the world appears like its ending with wars and insurrections, when there are earthquakes and famines, kingdoms rising and falling, he gives his disciples three commands: don’t be led astray, do not go after these false prophets, and do not be terrified. Even when you are persecuted, he says, do not be afraid, for not a hair on your head will be destroyed. For those who persevere, those who remain faithful and do not give into the prophets of doom, those who do not follow after all kinds of strange teachings, will survive and live in the kingdom of heaven.
Notice what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel today. As much as this might seem like an apocalyptic prediction meant to scare us, the point is actually the exact opposite. Against the doomsday sayers of our world, Jesus is not offering us a way to predict the future, but rather is giving us spiritual resources to cope with adversity in the present. Do not be afraid, Jesus says. There is nothing that could ever keep you from me if you have faith.
Too often, I think, we live with worry for the future. We allow prophets of doom to rattle us, to get us worried about things that are not true and have no effect on our lives. They have us believing in a fantasy world that does not exist, ruining everything we do. Because, really, isn’t that what the future is… a fantasy world? The past is very real in that it happened and we can learn from it. The present is absolutely real in that we are living and shaping it right now. But the future? What is the future other than a creation of our imagination? Who can say anything about the future with any surety? No one. Absolutely no one.
As Christians, we know how it will ultimately will end: the world will fade away and the Kingdom of God will take its place. There will be a final judgment, and the good will be separated from the evil. That is not in question. But how it will happen, when? Jesus tells us not to worry. The time you waste worrying about what may or may not happen, is time that could be spent building the kingdom in the present, time that you could have spent living, loving, trusting in God in the here and now.
As I see it, there are two types of people in the world: those who live in fear, those who worry about everything and want everyone else to worry about everything, and so run for the safety of bunkers, hiding from the world; and those who trust that no matter what happens, no matter how evil our world my appear, no matter what struggles we face, no matter what destruction befalls us, Jesus is in charge.
And so I ask you: which side do you want to be on? The side that lives in fear and does nothing, or the side that trusts in the Lord and lives every day with the freedom of the sons and daughters of God? Do not be led astray, do not follow after prophets of doom, and most of all, do not be afraid.